I can has cheezburger kosher

Christians and Old Testament Law

One of the most painful things about my stay in Israel was the complete and utter lack of … bacon.  Of course, most people understand that the Jewish prohibition against eating bacon is part of a list of dietary restrictions that collectively determine when a food is “kosher,” or ritually clean for eating, according to the standards of religious law in the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy in the Old Testament. Other victims of the rules of kosher include shellfish and cheeseburgers.

The laws contained in the Torah (literally, “Law,” including the first five books of the Bible) are not limited to just food, however. Other laws apply to how one dresses, personal cleanliness, rituals for worship, crime and punishment, and interpersonal relationships. These laws are responsible for many of the most visible aspects of modern-day Judaism, such as the use of the tefillin (more commonly known as phylacteries) while praying, ritual handwashing, beards and side-curls, and tassels on clothing.

Recently these laws have become a feature of the culture wars in America, being cited in discussions about same-sex marriage, women’s rights, and circumcision, among other things. There are two other important and related questions that I’ve encountered in discussions with skeptics and Christians. The first one is often asked by skeptics looking to challenge a Christian moral teaching: “Why are Christians selectively applying the rules in the Bible? After all, the Bible bans things like eating pork and shellfish, and mixing cloth types in clothing. Christians don’t obey these restrictions, so why make such a big deal by hypocritically complaining about violations of restrictions on various types of sex?” The second question is sometimes asked by Christians, whether they are pondering the first question or just thinking on their own: “Am I sinning by not following all of the Old Testament Law or, on the other hand, am I exempt from the Ten Commandments? Something in between?”

I can understand the concern about the hypocrisy… no one wants to be a hypocrite. In the case with these banned things and homosexuality, however, Christian interpretations aren’t chosen arbitrarily to be convenient for us. (In my own experience reading the Bible, I can’t say that I encounter convenient truths very often… it’s not something that really makes one comfortable.) Anyway, I say we don’t choose arbitrarily because there is actually a method Christians use to figure out what we’re to follow and what doesn’t apply.

Keep in mind that the laws in the Old Testament weren’t given to everyone to begin with, but were given to the Jews in the historical context of a theocratic nation.
Consequently, the laws such as the prohibition against eating pig and shellfish, not wearing garments of mixed cloth, etc, only ever applied within the nation of Israel. Some of these regulations were for maintaining good health habits, some were for maintaining social order, and some of them were to make the Jews “weird.” (This made it harder – from a cultural standpoint – to intermarry with the people around them – people who were busy worshiping idols, using human sacrifice, engaging in incest and cult prostitution, etc.) Mixed in with these laws were laws governing interpersonal relationships, including bans on adultery, homosexuality, incest, rape, bestiality, etc.

So what’s important and what’s not? Since the New Testament is the part of the Bible that delineates the teachings of Christianity, we follow a very simple, non-arbitrary rule: A command that occurs in the Old Testament and is repeated in the New Testament is binding for everyone. A command that occurs in the Old Testament and is not repeated in the New Testament no longer applies. The commands of the ritual law (things like eating pig and shellfish, wearing tassels on garments, and praying with phylacteries) were not reinforced in the New Testament. Things of a greater moral consequence (idol worship, sexual immorality, murder, etc) were reinforced and reiterated several times in the New Testament. Since the New Testament is the governing document (so to speak) of Christianity, that explains why we don’t make a big deal out of ritualistic cleanliness but do make a bigger deal about some issues, including sexuality.

There is another component to this discussion, however. Even though Christians take our moral commands from the New Testament, we do hold that the Old Testament is God’s word (though not originally given to non-Jews). We also believe that the Old Testament is still useful for moral instruction, and that applies to the passages regarding sexuality. So why don’t we interpret eating pig or shellfish as morally reprehensible, since both are called “abominations” in scripture? Let’s look at the word “abomination” (or let’s just say “disgusting”) that is used.

In English it comes out the same for each passage – eating shellfish and sexual sins are both “disgusting,” but even so, there are different senses of the word “disgusting,” even in English. Just think of the difference between saying “picking your nose is disgusting” and “incest is disgusting.” We clearly don’t mean that they are both immoral, even though we use the same word. But in Hebrew, we would actually use different words, just like the book of Leviticus does. We would say that picking one’s nose is “shaqqets,” which is just icky, like being disgusting in the sense that many people think eating sheep brains, lutefisk or, worse yet, cafeteria food, is disgusting. On the other hand, we would say that incest is “to’ebah” (pronounced “toe-AY-vah”), which carries the connotation of disgusting in the sense of being reprehensible, morally speaking. As it turns out, the Old Testament Law always uses “shaqqets” to describe food prohibitions, while it uses “to’ebah” to describe sex prohibitions. There are also much stronger penalties for sexual sin than for ritual violations, meaning even the Old Testament seems to place more importance on sexual morality than on dietary restrictions. Even if we limit our discussion only to the Old Testament, we still come to the same conclusion regarding sexuality as when we incorporate the New Testament.

To summarize, a simple way of knowing whether or not an Old Testament law applies to Christians today is to check the New Testament – the big commands are all repeated or expounded upon in the New Testament. The Old Testament (as a whole) is useful as a moral instructor for understanding the moral principles and reasoning of the New Testament.

Of course, there is much more that can be said about the wonderful ways the Old Testament (and yes, even the Law) can be used to deepen your spiritual walk. Right now, though, please excuse me… I’m off to eat a bacon cheezburger!

4 thoughts on “Christians and Old Testament Law

  1. Julio Lainez

    This article was very helpful and educationAl. I didn’t know the difference between food and sexual regulations in the old testament. I would love to see similar articles in the future. Thanks for sharing. :)

  2. Adam Sales

    Hey Josh
    Interesting… Where did this principle (laws and only laws repeated in the New Testament are obligatory) come from? Presumably Christians hold that Jews are not obligated in the OT laws, right? Why is that? (I’m vaguely aware of a Christian theological claim that Judaism focuses too much on the physical and not the spiritual aspect of things, and that salvation can only come from grace and not works (I guess that’s Protestant) …is there a legal or hermeneutic argument in addition to this?)

    Another question: you wrote in a previous post that, from an OT perspective, we’re all guilty of idolatry. Why? I’m actually quite curious about your answer, since I suspect Jews and Christians have significantly different understandings of what idolatry is.

    1. jalexander Post author

      Hi Adam, thanks for your thoughtful questions! I started to respond yesterday, but ended up losing my response. I’ll try to give the short answer here. No doubt you’ve noticed that saying that only laws repeated in the New Testament are obligatory is equivalent to saying that only the New Testament is binding. In other words, nothing in the Old Testament (or, I should say, Tanakh) is binding on Christians, because the Tanakh was given to the Jews. Jews are usually very good at recognizing this fact, and don’t try to make other people follow the Torah. I worded it the way I did so that Christians wouldn’t take it as a blanket dismissal of the Old Testament. I know we agree that there are things in the Tanakh other than the Torah, such as historical accounts, poetry, and prophecy that have a lot of value – they deal with some of the big existential questions and describe G-d’s chesed. When I think of the Psalms I think of David’s delight in serving G-d by following His law. I think Christians can benefit from these things, even though they aren’t Jews.

      Christians believe that Jews don’t need to follow the law to be saved, because they believe that perfect obedience to the law is humanly impossible… especially since Jesus strengthened the commands by making them about the internal state instead of the external state – sin comes from the human heart.They believe that Jesus was the once-for-all perfect sacrifice who could take away sins and cleanse the consciences of those who sinned, because he was perfect offering. In a sense, because he offered himself, he represented a perfect high priest as well. Some of this is explained in the Letter to the Hebrews in the N.T. – a letter written by a Jew, to Jews who were trying to work out how Jesus’ life and teachings related to Judaism. It’s an interesting book.

      Another reason we believe the laws don’t apply is because the Jews are no longer in a theocratic state – although I think Zechariah, Ezekiel, and Daniel all refer to a time when the sacrifices will be restarted, I think in connection to HaYom HaGadol.

      There is more I need to write, but I’ll post this before I again lose everything I just wrote!

      1. Adam

        (your addition problems are stumping me!)
        Interesting answer–very informative–thanks! I see you learned some Hebrew in Israel ;). One of these days I’ll have to catch up on my epistle reading…
        Follow up question: In Judaism, as far as my understand goes, the penitential sacrifice is only one part of repentance–in order for it to “work” you need to have regret, confession (directly to God) and a commitment to stop committing the sin (or at least to try–this is basically Maimonides’ formulation, but similar ideas exist in the Talmud). So, even with an ideal, ultimate sacrifice, we would be obligated in the commandments, as far as I know. Also–and I’ve never understood this part of the Christian argument–who says God demands perfection? So we fail every once in a while–that’s why we have repentance, and God’s mercy. So the fact that the Torah is too hard to keep perfectly doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Right?
        (Just cuz I’m responding to your answer to my first couple questions doesn’t mean I don’t wanna hear the answer to the question about idolatry–you’re still on the hook young man!)


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